The Heartland Cafe — R.I.P.

42 years: blink and you’ve missed it

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The current owner of the Heartland Café, Tom Rosenfeld, put the property up for sale in August of 2018. Back then, one possibility was that the building would remain and the Heartland might continue as a tenant. However, Rosenfeld just announced that they were progressing toward a sale but with the new owner planning on a new building. Rosenfeld went on to say they were scouting new locations, but his wording was sufficiently vague and tentative that someone as naturally pessimistic as myself would assume Rosenfeld will take the money and instead support his original passion: organic farming — which, after all, can’t be any more profitable than the restaurant. The Heartland’s last day is said to be December 31.

Considering how large and ugly the new buildings along Morse Avenue are, I’m not looking forward to whatever replaces the Heartland building.

For those who are not from around here, the Heartland Café was only sometimes adequate as a restaurant. Much more successfully, it was a performance venue, a gallery, a community center and a political institution in Chicago’s 49th Ward. In the 21st Century (and maybe for some years earlier), it was also quite frankly a tourist trap for folks looking for hippies or (more likely) remembering having been one back in the day.

The Heartland was established in 1976 by Katy Hogan, Michael James and Stormy Libman, the idea allegedly inspired by a mescaline trip. Hogan, I know, was the daughter of a leader in the IBEW. James had been a leader in the Students for a Democratic Society, participating in their Jobs Or Income Now community organizing project in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Libman and James were married. James had also been involved in publishing an Uptown neighborhood underground newspaper, Rising Up Angry. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Hogan and Libman had been involved with the paper as well, but I never asked nor do I have a masthead to consult.

James continued the tradition of Rising Up Angry by publishing, at irregular intervals, The Heartland Journal. It shared Rising Up Angry’s psychedelic underground style, albeit rather more accessible for reading… as befits an older and less intoxicated audience. James and Hogan also began a weekly radio program, “Live from the Heartland“, featuring political and cultural topics in an interview format. If I remember correctly, you can also find videos of most of the programs on YouTube.

Over the years, the Heartland Café took over the other businesses in the building (a bar and a theatre) as well as the venerable No Exit Café after it had moved a few doors south of the Heartland along Glenwood.

When Tom Rosenfeld took over, my impression is that he hoped running a restaurant would be synergistic with his organic farming. The Heartland always had a general store that sold condiments, books, magazines, novelties and such. Rosenfeld reduced the food service area by switching the restaurant room with the general store and turning the general store into a mini Whole Foods. I think it was a clever idea except for all the competition.

The CTA retaining wall along southbound Glenwood Avenue between Greenleaf and Lunt is devoted to what is essentially a block long commercial for the Heartland.

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Remembering the No Exit Café. Photo by Roman.

Interestingly, the murals begin by commemorating the No Exit Café. As an institution, the No Exit actually began in Evanston. I don’t know when it moved to Rogers Park. When I moved to Rogers Park, it inhabited a large store front at the corner of Lunt and northbound Glenwood — which is to say east of the CTA tracks while the Heartland is west. I’ve forgotten when but sometime around the turn of the century the No Exit moved to a smaller location west of the tracks on Glenwood. After a while, it became more of a theatre venue than a coffee house. The No Exit finally gave up the ghost in early 2018. Now it is Le Piano.

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Presumably also a folksinger. Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman

I don’t recall Charlotte Goldberg, but I worked with Tobey Prinz as a tenant organizer when I first moved to Rogers Park. She was a leader in the Rogers Park Tenants Committee. I learned I was not particularly good at being an organizer.

The original name of her group had been something like the Rogers Park Committee Against Unemployment and Inflation. If that sounds like something out of the 1930s, you’re on to something. Think of it as a generational thing. It became the Tenants Committee because, it turned out, landlord / tenant disputes was the most pressing issue for most people in Rogers Park. The neighborhood really owes a lot to the Rogers Park Tenants Committee and to Tobey Prinz. The rest of Chicago as well: 49th Ward Alderman David Orr and the Rogers Park Tenants Committee were lead players in passing the Tenants’ Bill of Rights ordinance. Through a merger or two, the Rogers Park Tenants Committee lives on as Northside Action for Justice.

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Yes, Obama kicked off his campaign for the U.S. Senate at the Heartland Café. Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman
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Mural credits. Photo by Roman.
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The entrance to the Heartland in its last days. Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman

Note that the building is setback from Lunt Avenue. This is a fairly common feature in Rogers Park, maybe other neighborhoods, “to guaranee generous front yards and a consistent appearance of a block.” This was from the 1920s when it was assumed the plot(s) would be single family housing. You can find out more at “Anatomy of a Small Urban Plaza: Jarvis Square“.

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Photo by Roman.

I must admit that in the past several years, I’ve only eaten at the Heartland a few times a year, even though it’s only a few blocks from my apartment. I don’t believe I’ve ever been to their bar. And I’m not sure that I’ve been to the No Exit this century. Mostly, I just don’t have the money for it, and I’d rather cook than be served. Still, I’m going to miss the Heartland, mostly because I’m not sure what it will mean for the neighborhood, including my ability to live here, and what it will mean for politics in the 49th Ward.

November 25, 1987

was a Wednesday and found me on a train, delayed, sitting in the LaSalle Street terminal in downtown Chicago. I was on my way to my parents’ home for Thanksgiving. It was a morning of shock and desolation for me and for much of Chicago. Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black Mayor, had just died of a massive heart attack. He was 65 years old.

The train was delayed because, coincidentally, a stout middle-aged man had collapsed in the doorway of my passenger car. The paramedics were called. Someone was giving him chest compressions. When they arrived, the paramedics got him stabilized enough to move, but it didn’t look hopeful, nor did it look hopeful, at that moment, for Chicago.

My own involvement with Washington was simply as one of the thousands of volunteers who worked on his 1983 and 1987 campaigns for Mayor. It was mostly phone work for me, as I recall, though there may have been a few occasions for canvassing and voter registration… It’s been a while and memory fades.

Washington’s reign as Mayor also corresponded with several years when I was more or less taking a break from politics, except occasionally in a “Jimmy Higgins” role. My organization, the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), had endorsed Washington’s 1983 campaign at a meeting in a church in the Logan Square / Palmer Square area. Harold Washington appeared at the meeting to make a pitch for his campaign. I remember being at the meeting though I no longer recall what Washington had to say.

DSA, I should add, made a credible contribution to Washington’s 1983 and 1987 campaigns in terms of volunteers, campaign leadership, and even some money. This was not reported then nor is has it been mentioned in any of the Chicago histories or Washington biographies that I’ve read.* Part of it is a cultural bias. Have you noticed how the indexes of U.S. histories mention far more individuals than they do organizations; how the histories are written mostly about individuals and not about organizations? It was also a very different time politically. An organization like DSA would not have been considered part of mainstream politics and thus not in the horse race. Plus, Washington’s “horse race” would be mostly decided in the Black and Hispanic wards. That was why he insisted on a successful voter registration drive prior to formally beginning the 1983 campaign. Most histories follow the story in those communities. Everywhere else was a side-show. In that side-show, DSA’s contribution was matched or more by the Independent Voters of Illinois — Independent Precinct Organization (then the Illinois affiliate of the Americans for Democratic Action, maybe 2 to 4 times Chicago DSA’s size with a good deal more money) and the Heart of Uptown Coalition (a community group).

The last time I saw Harold Washington was just a few weeks before his death. It was at a banquet that was part of a “Democratic Alternatives for Illinois” conference held in Chicago. “Democratic Alternatives” was a series of conferences organized across the nation by DSA but this particular event was organized primarily by the Illinois Public Action Council (now known as Citizen Action / Illinois) with DSA and other groups (including some unions) in a supporting role. All of the conferences were directed at strengthening the left in electoral politics, but this one had a particular urgency as Washington’s second term would be the first where he had majority support in the Chicago City Council. His hands were finally free of an obstructionist opposition, but so were Washington’s allies. Washington had a stellar record as a state legislator and as a U.S. Representative, but he had his start as part of the Mayor Daley’s Regular Democrats. This made for awkward choices while he was in the Illinois legislature. Not all of his community and city council support were all that interested in liberal / left policies but would have preferred to simply trade a White political machine for one of color. Washington faced a municipal budget crisis not too dissimilar to what Chicago faces today, and his response was “austerity”. To paraphrase Marx, humans make history, but not just as they please. How would or could Washington balance these tensions?

We’ll never know.

And yet, those brief four years that he was Mayor made a huge difference in Chicago’s political culture. Some of it was timing and some of it was Washington himself. But that’s another story.


* I don’t claim to have read any where near everything published about Washington’s campaigns. I do know that Jim Weinstein mentioned DSA in passing in an In These Times op-ed about the Chicago municipal election in April of 1983. But that was a socialist publication. Right-wing polemicists (Stanley Kurtz, as an example) for whom merely mentioning the word “socialist” is an inspiration to fear and outrage discovered DSA’s support for Washington some years ago, mostly in the context trying to persuade people that Obama is / was a socialist: an excellent example of how ideology can sometimes make people politically tone deaf. They ramped up the noise around that narrative right when the economy was crashing.

I don’t recall that the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (a predecessor organization to DSA) was particularly involved with Washington’s unsuccessful 1977 campaign for Mayor, but the New American Movement (the other predecessor organization to DSA) certainly was.

Norman Thomas

was born this day in 1884. As Wikipedia summarizes his life: “an American Presbyterian minister who achieved fame as a socialist, pacifist, and six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America.” He also ran for a variety of other down-ballot offices on the Socialist Party ticket, and he was the author of numerous articles, pamphlets and books.

It’s hard for me not to regard Thomas as something of a sad figure in history. He aspired to be a new Eugene Debs and the Great Depression provided his second Presidential campaign with a great opportunity, but he and the other leaders of the Socialist Party proved unable to navigate the turbulent currents of 1930s politics. The movement fragmented and declined in the face of changes in political practice, obdurate personalities, and sabotage from the left and the right. By the time the 1950s came about, the Socialist Party had ceased to be a useful agency for much of anything outside of two or three small cities and Thomas had given up running for President.

Third parties on the national level have always had a hard time of it. By the time Thomas came along, it was hard to make a case for them though they could be made to work on the State and most especially on the local level. On the other hand, left-wing non-party formations from the 1930s like the Social Democratic Federation or New America didn’t exactly prosper either, especially after World War II.

I never had the opportunity to meet or see Norman Thomas. He died in December of 1968. I joined the Young Peoples Socialist League in 1969. By the late 1980s, I became, for many years, a principal organizer of an annual Dinner that included his name: the Eugene V. Debs — Norman Thomas — Michael Harrington Dinner. It was an event that, since 1958, had spanned several sponsoring organizations, from the Socialist Party — Social Democratic Federation to the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to the Democratic Socialists of America.

The photo below is from the 1959 Dinner, then called the Debs Day Dinner, held in November of that year.

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A. Philip Randolph and Norman Thomas at the 1959 Debs Day Dinner in Chicago. Photo by Syd Harris.

A. Philip Randolph was the head of the Sleeping Car Porters union and a major civil rights leader from the 1920s through the 1960s. A. Philip Randolph was a member of the Socialist Party as well. Randolph doesn’t look at all pleased to be there, but I don’t know the story behind it. Thomas, though, seems to have an appetite. The event may have been held at Chicago’s old Midland Hotel as that was the usual venue for many of the early Dinners. I’m told the hotel was owned by an old lefty who was still sympathetic to the movement.

November 11, 1887

was a Friday and four of the eight defendants convicted in connection with the Haymarket Affair were executed — hung — in the alley behind Chicago’s old City Hall: George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons and August Spies. The evening before, another of the convicted, Louis Lingg, had committed suicide by biting down on a blasting cap while in his cell. Two others, Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab, had their sentences commuted to life in prison by Illinois Governor Richard James Oglesby. Oscar Neebe had been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. In 1893, Illinois Governor John Altgeld pardoned Fielden, Schwab and Neebe.

The Haymarket Affair grew out of the struggle for an 8 hour work day. A predecessor organization to the AFL-CIO, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, had proclaimed that as of May 1, 1886, the 8 hour day would be “the law” and a series of strikes and demonstrations were organized to enforce the proclamation or it was included as a part of ongoing disputes, such as the strike at the McCormick harvester plant in Chicago that had been ongoing since February. On May 3, 1886, a rally at the McCormick plant was violently suppressed by police, killing at least two of the striking workers.

A protest rally was hastily organized for the next evening at Chicago’s Haymarket on the near west side. It was poorly attended, about a tenth the size organizers had hoped. As the rally sputtered to an end in the face of oncoming rain, Inspector John “Black Jack” Bonfield arrived with a large contingent of police, despite having been instructed by Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., to stand down. A bomb was thrown at the police, killing several and severely wounding many others. The police responded by shooting indiscriminately, hitting several of their own and many of the crowd. It’s not known how many of the demonstrators were killed or injured.

If you work a 40 hour week, you can thank the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions and the Chicago anarchists for your leisure time. If you live anywhere but in the United States, you can thank the Haymarket Affair for making May 1st your Labor Day.

There are three points that I think are worth making this year.

First, present day histories of the Affair tend to downplay a simple fact: Most of the Haymarket defendants were revolutionaries. They would have been seriously disappointed to be presented as anything else. They generally came to that position as much through experience as anything else. I don’t mean this as an endorsement of insurrection, but whatever you might think of it in the present, they were making a reasonable assessment of their own times and of the immediate possibilities for change. It shouldn’t be downplayed.

Second, the case against the defendants had scarce physical evidence. The suicide, Louis Lingg, was apparently a bomb-maker and the physical remains of the thrown bomb were consistent with his product. How much you want to trust this is up to you. The law was not well respected by much of Chicago, not just by the anarchists. And there is some doubt, of course, about whether or not Lingg’s death was actually suicide.

Most of the case against the Haymarket defendants was their own rhetoric. For example, Samuel Fielden, the last speaker at the rally, was winding up his speech with:

“A million men hold all the property in this country. The law has no use for the other fifty-four millions. You have nothing more to do with the law except to lay hands on it and throttle it until it makes its last kick… Keep your eye upon it, throttle it, kill it, stab it, do everything you can to wound it — to impede its progress.”

Incendiary language, certainly. Worthy of the death penalty? Yes? No? Now tell me: What should be done about Donald Trump’s rhetoric?

Ah well, that was then and they were poor. This is now and Trump is rich.

Finally, Inspector John Bonfield is a bigger player in this story than most accounts provide. While he was not in charge of the earlier police action at the McCormick harvester plant, he was a participant. He got the nickname “Black Jack” through his liberal use of the same in putting down other labor strikes in Chicago. He was later accused of stealing Louis Lingg’s clothing and property to sell. This accusation led to his resignation from the Chicago Police. Perhaps he had supplied the blasting cap as well?

For all that the left and labor justifiably hated him, Bonfield is an interesting character. You can find a good summary of his life and misadventures HERE, but there’s a good deal more available on the web, including his testimony at the Haymarket Affair trial. He’s buried under a modest stone in Oakwood Cemetery on Chicago’s southeast side.

Vote!! November 6

“Voting never makes any difference.”

“If voting changed anything, they‘d have made it illegal.”

I generally respond by pointing out that it usually only takes up no more than an hour of your time, often less, and what do you expect from such a small investment of time? Quite frankly, I’ve spent days on picket lines to less effect. With early voting and vote by mail you have really no excuse. This is your last chance.

And for those who complain of not being able to “vote my values”, why do you assume this is all about you?

Your vote does make a difference, in some contests more than in others and in some elections more than in others. Which side you’re on is beside the point: if you value some degree of nonviolence in how we settle disputes, get to the polls on Tuesday, November 6, and vote.

Happy Birthday, Debs!

On this day in 1855, Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. He is notable as having been a leader in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, an Indiana state legislator, a founder and President of the American Railway Union, a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, and a founder and five time Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America.

The Eugene V. Debs Foundation maintains his home in Terre Haute, Indiana, as a museum.

Debs saw himself, and the Socialist Party, more as a catalyst than as a vehicle. My currently favorite quote from Debs illustrates this nicely:

“I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now, the capitalists use your heads and your hands.”

Broken Politics?

In this video, Vox teams up with the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution to cast shade on the Republican Party:

“Over the past few decades, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have moved away from the center. But the Republican Party has moved towards the extreme much more quickly — a trend that political scientists call “asymmetrical polarization.” That asymmetry poses a major obstacle in American politics. As Republicans have become more ideological, they’ve also become less willing to work with Democrats: filibustering Democratic legislation, refusing to consider Democratic appointees, and even shutting down the government in order to force Democrats to give in to their demands.”

It might surprise you that I have some misgivings about this argument.

Part of it is that I challenge the very existence of a “Republican” or a “Democratic” party. As political parties are understood in most parts of the world, parties here in the States simply do not exist. Fragments of parties exist. The opposing caucuses in legislative bodies exist and they have important consequences — committee assignments, work priorities and the like. There’s something of a party bureaucracy that mostly serves as a conduit for money and as a vendor of political services (polling, data processing, etc.) all of which is available elsewhere. If you are a candidate, you have no obligation to use your party’s services. And there are party clubs. But none of these entities have any organic connections among them. And the parties do exist in the electorate: People self identify as Democrats and Republicans. If there is anything real and vitally consequential about American political parties, it is mostly to be found in the electorate’s self identification. But beyond that, what we see as political parties are entities that have been partially taken over by the government and have, at best, vestigial independence apart from the government. State laws, mostly, govern party structure, party officials, party candidates, even what constitutes “membership” in a political party. Oh yes: finances, too.

This varies from state to state and among the various U.S. territories. We don’t have a two party system but rather over 50 different party systems in this country. A few have multiple party brands, others but two. When you drill down to the local level, you often find a more various political landscape.

The “asymmetrical polarization” that this video documents is a phenomenon that is primarily manifest in the parties’ constituencies. It’s reflected by and amplified by professional politicians and activists for their own ends, but it would not exist in government if it did not exist in the electorate.

The polarization is a result of something that has been in the works since at least the Great Depression, when New Deal Democrats, bothered by Dixiecrat sabotage and obstruction, dreamed of realigning the “parties” in ideological terms. The “Democrats” would be the liberals; “Republicans” would be the conservatives.

Fast forward to the 1960s and both sides were working on this project, including Norm Ornstein and the American Enterprise Institute (out of the wreckage of the Barry Goldwater campaign) on the conservative side. On the left in the 1970s, you had organizations like the New Democratic Coalition (not to be confused with the “third way” folks of later decades) and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. The so-called Reagan Revolution and the increased use of primary elections over conventions pretty much accomplished the project. By the 1990s, at latest, the Republican brand had become the brand of conservatives. The Republican brand is not “more” ideological today, it’s just more confident and less willing to compromise than it was in the 1980s.

If one of the our two political brands becomes clearly and dogmatically defined (in this case, the Republicans), the other brand will opportunistically begin to incorporate everyone alienated from the first. It’s also easy to see how “asymmetry” in early stages would feed upon itself unless somehow interrupted. It also seems likely that the social democratic / progressive wing of the Democratic brand will have difficulty dominating its vehicle in the near term at least: too many political refugees with money.

So what is Ornstein complaining about? Given the racism underlying the current Republican brand (it wasn’t always so, at least in this geezer’s life span) and the shifting demographics that promise it less than a majority, it is easy to see how Ornstein and Mann sense disaster on conservatism’s present course. And they’re not alone.

Oh, boo hoo.

Aside from the blatant expressions of bigotry, there’s really not a huge gap in policy between the Trump Republicans of 2018 and the Reagan Republicans of 1980. The most obvious differences are based in personality more than anything else: the audacity of ignorance is remarkable in 2018. Reagan may have about as factually challenged as Trump, but Reagan was an amiable fellow to his friends and was willing (with some exceptions) to be steered. Trump is a stubborn old coot. Today’s open bigotry does count for something, also. I expect without it we might have at least some movement on immigration policy because population growth is the easiest way to grow an economy… among other less benign rationales. But beyond that, what’s new? This is Goldwater / Reagan conservatism rampant.

But how does ideological polarization work when the structure of our governments (both on the Federal level and on the level of the States) demands some degree of consensus? (Think of the “checks and balances” that you learned about in high school civics class.)

The answer, obviously, is not very well.

And that’s a problem for us lefites, too.

Don’t neglect to vote!